Comfort under a tarp


One of the myths about ultralight backpacking needs nailing because it is complete twaddle and the myth concerns comfort.  Ultralight backpacking is not inherently uncomfortable.  In fact, it is more comfortable than traditional backpacking approaches.  The third of the day spent moving becomes much more enjoyable with less to carry while the bulk of the day, spent in camp, is at least as comfortable as it would have been with standard kit.

In a tent, I sleep better than in a house.  Many will agree with that but may be surprised to hear that I sleep better under a tarp than is possible for me in a tent.  I suspect this may have something to do with how many chemicals and allergenic particles are in the sleeping environment, but I’m guessing.  What is genuinely remarkable is just how thoroughly refreshed I am after waking from a good kip under a tarp.

Then consider my last two visits to the excellent campsite at Braithwaite.  Their superb toilet block is second only to home as a place to clean up after a demanding few days of backpacking.  (I hope they didn’t suffer too much in the floods.)

Inside my Akto, one New Year, I noticed my breath freezing not only on the flysheet but also inside the inner.  Before going to sleep, I swept every particle of ice out of the tent but that didn’t save me.  For seven hours, as I slept, the ice built back up and then, at 6am, a warm front rolled in.  The temperature changed quickly enough to cause rainfall inside my tent.

Obviously, condensation forms inside a tarp if the dew point is right but I have never seen as much condensation under a tarp as I usually get inside a tent.  (I disagree with Ray Jardine when he says the condensation issue makes tarps warmer than tents.  Zipping up the inner on my old Phoenix Phantom was like putting on a jumper.  Tarp use sometimes calls for more clothing than a tent would have in the same circumstances.)

Back at Braithwaite in the summer, despite drizzle, I pitched my Trailstar in its wide open configuration, with one corner and two sides elevated.  The pointy bit provided such good protection that I was able to sleep in front of the central pole.  This was another of those sensationally good sleeps and it ended when I was ready, rather than when the weather dictated.

So, the two thirds of the day spent in camp is more comfortable under a tarp than in a tent.  Now for the other bit.  In his Mountain Walk book, Hamish Brown titled one section Naked Before the Mountain.  He complained of nappy rash and stripped off to cope.  Sweaty itching is a problem I also used to suffer from with proper hip belts.  Sweat flowed down my back and pooled in the hip belt area.  With traditional backpacking kit, within a couple of summery days I’d be suffering from an itchy rash.  These days, I only do up my rucksack’s hip belt if it contains more than three days worth of food or if I’m scrambling.  No more itching.

Hamish cut the hip belt off his Berghaus Phantom rucksack, which seems a bit drastic, but suggests that he was no fan of heavy packs – a hip belt is useful when carrying too much.  He wrote about fighting every ounce of the way and I’m with him on that.

Other mythical nonsense concerns expense and durability.  I’ve written enough so I’ll refer you to the equipment sections of Beyond Backpacking.  The homemade gear Ray describes is simple, tough and cheap.  Stand by for my next post on ultralight backpacking.  Unlike this one, it will be a little bit controversial!


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